A larger-than-life figure, Ahmet Ertegun’s long career with Atlantic Records paralleled the music business' evolution from quirky cottage industry to corporate enterprise. Ertegun and original partner Herb Abramson co-founded Atlantic in 1947 as a small independent label, and would eventually turn the company into one of the music industry's most powerful forces, releasing a great many commercial and critical successes and fostering artists ranging from John Coltrane and Ray Charles to Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones to ABBA and Kid Rock.
The Istanbul-born son of the Republic of Turkey's ambassador to the United States, Ertegun grew up in Washington, D.C., where he cultivated a deep love for American R&B and Jazz, and for African-American culture in general. The comfort with which he moved between the earthy world of Blues and R&B musicians and more rarified strata of society he was born into has been often noted, as has Ertegun’s personal charm and charisma. He started Atlantic with Abramson not long out of college, with help from a $10,000 loan from his family’s dentist.
Atlantic's original incarnation was run on a shoestring, achieving its first national hit with Stick McGhee's "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” in 1949. Atlantic went on to challenge major labels' dominance with historic recordings by such R&B giants as Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, The Drifters, The Coasters, and Ray Charles.
In addition to operating the label and scouting talent, Ertegun often played a hands-on role in overseeing his artists' recording sessions, while sometimes writing songs for them as well. By the mid-'50s, Atlantic was America's most successful Rhythm and Blues label, while setting new technical standards with stereo and multi-track recording, thanks to the company's pioneering staff engineer Tom Dowd. Atlantic also built a roster of some of Jazz's most innovative musicians, including John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Many of the label's Jazz acts were signed by Ahmet's older brother Nesuhi, who had became a partner in the company.
In the '60s, Atlantic played a major role in Rhythm and Blues' evolution into Soul, hosting such artists as Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, and Percy Sledge. But Atlantic achieved greater commercial success in the Rock album market in the late 60s and early 70s, scoring major hits with such acts as Cream, Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Ertegun and his partners sold Atlantic to Warner Bros. in 1967, resulting in the company eventually becoming a part of the Time Warner conglomerate, but Ertegun remained at the company's helm until his death in 2006, which resulted from a critical injury suffered in a backstage fall at a Rolling Stones concert in New York City.